Philosophy has evolved over the course of its history in such a way as to have essentially split into two distinct disciplines: 1) philosophy as a way of life, and 2) philosophy as a technical discipline.
At its inception, in ancient Greece, philosophy was practiced, not simply studied. That meant, for example, that you did not collect arguments piecemeal from different sources and present them for rhetorical effect—this, to the Greeks, was nothing more than sophistry.
Instead, you immersed yourself within a particular school, internalizing a unique perspective by which you could orient your place in the world and practice living the good life. If you were a Platonist or a Stoic, you lived as a Platonist or Stoic, applying the relevant principles and developing the habits of mind that built your character according to the ideals of the school.
Philosophy, when practiced in this way—as the art of living—is not something external to the individual, to be pursued as a side project. Philosophy is instead a part of each person’s being, an indispensable guide to navigating the world. Philosophy in this way becomes integral to one’s identity and how one thinks, acts, and lives.
If you had asked the ancient Greeks what the purpose of philosophy is, or if the subject is relevant to practical concerns, they would have thought you were mad. To not have a philosophy would be to barely exist, to be constantly at the whim of someone else’s philosophy or to blindly pursue superficial pleasures and material ambitions.
According to Pierre Hadot, philosopher and author of Philosophy as a Way of Life: Spiritual Exercises from Socrates to Foucault, this conception of philosophy was mostly lost (with some exceptions) after Christianity subsumed the human mind. During the Middle Ages, and particularly after the closure of the philosophical schools in the 6th century CE, philosophy would become nothing more than the handmaid of theology.
Theology, of course, simply assumes what it’s trying to prove before providing arguments for that conclusion, and the act of theorizing was thus disconnected from the art of living, as one was expected to live life in conformance to the teachings of scripture (or the Church’s interpretation of scripture). This was the death of philosophy as an open-ended pursuit and a means to living according to the dictates of reason and freedom of conscience.
Philosophy never quite recovered from this. Even when released from the grasp of theology, it adopted a secondary role to modern science. Modern philosophers, instead of returning to philosophy’s roots, turned instead to logical positivism, science, and the analysis of language, as if philosophical problems were merely illusions and that an orientation to living the good life was an irrelevant problem.
What Hadot is advocating for in Philosophy as a Way of Life is a full return to the conception and practice of philosophy as a guide to life. While science can inform our philosophy, and the analysis of language is necessary and useful, the primary task of philosophy is the development of our basic orientation to the world, our approach to knowledge, our moral stance and character, and our shaping of life’s purpose. As Hadot wrote:
“From the preceding examples, we may get some idea of the change in perspective that may occur in our reading and interpretation of the philosophical works of antiquity when we consider them from the point of view of the practice of spiritual exercises. Philosophy then appears in its original aspect: not as a theoretical construct, but as a method for training people to live and to look at the world in a new way. It is an attempt to transform mankind. Contemporary historians of philosophy are today scarcely inclined to pay attention to this aspect, although it is an essential one. The reason for this is that, in conformity with a tradition inherited from the Middle Ages … they consider philosophy to be purely abstract-theoretical activity.”
The ancient Greek philosophers did not consider philosophy to be a separate matter, a theoretical activity that had no bearing on practical concerns. To the Greeks, each philosophical school advocated for particular ideals as a way of prioritizing certain aspects of intellectual and moral virtue.
Platonism, Aristotelianism, Stoicism, Skepticism, and Epicureanism all emphasized different aspects: Epicureanism prioritized the pursuit of moderate pleasure; Stoicism, the control of emotions and the attainment of tranquility; Aristotelianism, the pleasure derived from investigating all the parts of nature; Skepticism, the suspending of judgement altogether. While each school disagreed on the primary orientation to life, all schools agreed that philosophical contemplation, the development of character, and living by higher ideals was superior to a life spent chasing unending and limitless desires and accumulating material wealth or fame.
Contrast this approach to the approach of modern analytic philosophy, which focuses primarily on the grammar of natural language and the analysis of formal logic. While this is obviously important—clearing up confusing language and sloppy logic can clear away many problems and poorly constructed ideas—it doesn’t solve all philosophical problems.
To repeat, not all philosophical problems are simply the result of “linguistic confusion.” Clearing up problematic language does not eliminate the question of how to live your life, how to treat others, how to create purpose, how to evaluate and form beliefs, and how to decide what reality ultimately consists of.
If you ignore this all-important task of practical philosophy, then you will end up allowing others to make the choices for you, or, in what amounts to the same thing, relying on religion to provide the answers. Alternatively, you can ignore these problems, but your lack of attention to them does not make them disappear.
When philosophy is made to be irrelevant to the question of life’s ultimate meaning and purpose, people turn elsewhere, typically to either religion or science. In this conflict, religion wins every time for those that cannot derive sufficient meaning from contemplating the intricacies of the material world. But there is an alternative path which, like religion, gives life spiritual purpose (for lack of a better term), but unlike religion, does not require the surrender of our critical faculties or the rejection of science. This is the path laid out in ancient philosophy, which remains, and will continue to remain, relevant to our ultimate concerns.
Here are some of the best books on ancient philosophy, Stoicism, and Epicureanism:
The Practicing Stoic: A Philosophical User’s Manual by Ward Farnsworth
How to Be a Stoic: Using Ancient Philosophy to Live a Modern Life by Massimo Pigliucci
Art of Living: The Classical Manual on Virtue, Happiness, and Effectiveness by Epictetus and Sharon Lebell
Epicurus and the Pleasant Life: A Philosophy of Nature by Haris Dimitriadis